The Values Bernie Sanders and Israel Once Shared

'I'm not a great fan' of Netanyahu, Sanders admits; as a Jew, he had always admired a different Israeli leader, David Ben-Gurion, the social democrat.

Sanders during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, February 8, 2016.
AP

On the tractor jolting back to the kibbutz farm after another day in the fields, the two Bernards resumed their usual argument over where the next revolution in America would be.

“It’ll be with us, in South America. Che will take care of it,” declared Bernardo, a work-group member from Argentina. “And I’m telling you that ours had already started,” insisted Bernie, the volunteer from Brooklyn. “We’re the revolutionary generation; opposition to Vietnam, black power, the flower children.”

Uri, a kibbutz old-timer, looked at them and grinned. “My young revolutionaries, what are you talking about? Here we’ve already had the revolution; now it’s your turn to protect it.”

This conversation never happened, but similar ones presumably did. In 1963, a young Bernie Sanders volunteered at a kibbutz. The story would be no more than a cute anecdote had Sanders not described it as a formative experience in his life. That’s why everyone was eager to find out which kibbutz it was, to figure out what made Sanders what he is today: a determined socialist who is rocking the boat of American politics.

The researchers poring through kibbutz archives can rest easy. Whether it was Sha’ar Ha’amakim in the north, or Nir Oz on the border with the Gaza Strip, it’s clear that the young volunteer was already politically committed when he arrived. Sanders had been a member of a number of radical organizations in the United States and had accumulated rich experience as a civil-rights activist, including demonstrations and arrests. Right before coming to Israel he participated in the March on Washington, where he heard Martin Luther King cry out, “I have a dream.”

So what “formative” experience did he undergo on kibbutz? One can reasonably assume it was the encounter between ideology and its implementation.

Sanders is a product of America’s Jewish labor left. Growing up in a poor family, under the cloud of the Holocaust, he found in the Jewish state not just the rebirth of the Jewish nation but also the ideal of striving for a life of sharing and social change. For the young man who had battled policemen in protests against school segregation, who came from a country where “socialist” was a slur, the socialist Zionism of the Hashomer Hatzair movement was indeed a formative experience — and not just for him. For all its difficulties and errors, that Israel was a source of pride that captured people’s hearts.

That thrilling encounter with the kibbutz underlines how far the Jews of Israel and the rest of the world have grown apart. The masses of Jewish youths that are flocking to Sanders’ rallies no longer view Israel, with its occupation and racism, as a desirable destination, much less an ideological model. But the ruling forces in Israel mock Jews like Sanders. They don’t understand his and his supporters’ values and openly express fear over his increasing popularity. They would prefer fanatic evangelicals who are nauseating for Jews.

What will Benjamin Netanyahu say to Sanders if they meet? Would he arrange for a remedial capitalist experience, tell Sanders how he’s moved Israel to the top of the global economic ranking and then listen to the radio show of ultra-rightist Yoram Sheftel? “I’m not a great fan” of Netanyahu, Sanders admits, saying that as a Jew he had always admired a different Israeli leader, David Ben-Gurion, the social democrat.

There’s no way to know how Sanders’ presidential campaign will end, but we can already say he will be remembered as one of the most prominent Jews in American politics. We should be proud of him, and happy about his special connection to Israel — a connection that is the essence of Zionism. Tragically, in Jerusalem the feeling is the opposite.

What does that say about Sanders? Nothing. His values haven’t changed. They are hugely popular. What does that say about Israel? Everything. Its values have undergone a profound transformation that is pushing away a large portion of the Jewish people.